Research Suggests Strategic Approach to Developing Women

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To advance women around the world into leadership roles, business leaders should identify—and develop strategies to counteract—specific barriers inhibiting the recruitment, promotion and retention of women at their organization, new research suggests.

The report by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a global management consulting firm, finds that gender diversity continues to be emphasized worldwide. Eighty-five percent of business leaders interviewed in 2012 see gender diversity as a top priority, and 90 percent see a connection between diversity and their companies’ success.

Nevertheless, even in companies that are working proactively on diversity challenges, “the efforts to include women in senior roles leave room for improvement,” according to Shattering the Glass Ceiling: An Analytical Approach to Advancing Women into Leadership Roles, released in August 2012.

The report explores practices used by 44 companies around the world to develop women. Among the participants are notable names such as Adidas, American Express, BMW and SAP.

“Overall, women are well-represented in the workplace, but the pipeline breaks down somewhere between middle management and the C-suite,” according to the report. This is not caused by a lack of awareness of the gender diversity gap, however. “Rather, the greatest obstacle is the need for each organization to identify its own glass ceiling,” the report explains.

Five Barriers for Female Leaders

BCG’s report notes that relatively few respondents blamed the “stereotypical female persona,” which suggests that women are less assertive and less willing to fight for power, for the low representation of women in leadership roles.

Rather, Rainer Strack, senior partner and global leader of the HR topic at BCG, said in a media statement that “The lack of women in leadership positions is primarily a problem of internal talent management; women receive considerably fewer promotions.”

BCG’s research revealed five overall themes organizations should explore as possible barriers in their own workplaces:

  • A culture of office presence and “face time.”
  • Lack of off- and on-ramping procedures for women who leave and rejoin the workplace.
  • Male-oriented selection criteria.
  • Lack of gender diversity awareness among management.
  • Inadequate management of leadership pipelines.

The report conveys optimism for the future of gender diversity: “Despite age-old cultural prejudices, many gender diversity challenges are within the scope of change for most employers, and it is reasonable to expect that companies can respond to them, no matter how embedded or institutionalized they seem,” the report noted.

Existing Gender Diversity Programs

The most popular program offered by BCG’s respondents were women’s networking groups (68 percent), followed by diversity training, mentoring for women and skills training for women (with each program available at 46 percent of companies studied).

However, other programs examined by BCG were far less common:

  • Diversity targets for managers (35 percent).
  • Role model campaign (25 percent).
  • Job-sharing in management (25 percent).
  • Financial incentives linked to diversity (22 percent).
  • Targeted recruiting for female talent (17 percent).

There are a number of possible explanations for the choices organizations make, not the least of which is scarce resources.

The BCG report notes that gender diversity efforts are less likely to be supported by organization leaders absent “a strong, fact-based business case.” In other words, a simple list of diversity programs that have been launched is not compelling enough. Such efforts can gain credibility and acceptance, the report adds, if they highlight the rationale behind the programs and the impact they are expected to have on long-term business results.

“Although now-widespread measures such as women’s networks, mentorship programs and diversity training for managers are steps in the right direction, they alone will not turn gender diversity into a competitive advantage,” BCG noted.

Strategic Diversity and Inclusion

Therefore, BCG recommends a systematic and strategic approach to diversity management. “It’s not about random percentages or yet another diversity training program,” said Susanne Dyrchs, co-author of the report and a BCG topic expert in diversity and talent management, in a media statement. “It’s about getting a complete grip on how an organization recruits, retains, and promotes its diverse talent so it can identify its Achilles’ heel in terms of gender diversity.”

“The entire effort has to be viewed and pursued—from the C-suite on down—as an ongoing, cross-company initiative,” the report added.

“Women make a significant share of the buying decisions … having [womens’] insights and expertise in key leadership roles is crucial to overall business success,” wrote Shirley Engelmeier, founder, CEO and chief inclusion strategist for InclusionINC, in an e-mail to SHRM Online.

“Because women spend 80 percent of consumer dollars, their opinions matter, both at work and at the store,” she wrote. Inclusion is a strategy for engaging and retaining great women, she added; inclusion shifts the focus from representation to getting the best, most innovative ideas from the workforce to drive the business.

Yet organizations cannot focus merely on having the right number of women in the workplace, according to Engelmeier, author of Inclusion: The New Competitive Business Advantage (InclusionINC Media, 2012). They must also make sure that women’s voices are heard organizationwide. Because women often aren’t an integral part of leadership, their voices and insights are not heard, Engelmeier noted.

One way to create opportunities for women to prove themselves and prepare for leadership roles, she wrote, is to create more career lattice opportunities—or horizontal career paths—and fewer career ladder opportunities.

In addition, Engelmeier agreed with BCG’s suggestion that improved on-ramp and off-ramp procedures would allow women to “move in and out of the workplace around their family needs without penalizing them for ‘not being serious’ about their career.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM. To read the orginal article, please click here.